Indian women fighting sexual harassment

By Amrit Dhillon  /  THE OBSERVER , NEW DELHI

Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 9

A man on a New Delhi street has a quick grope of a young British woman's breast before running off. Were it not for the fact that she was the daughter of a British diplomat, it's unlikely the event would have even been reported to the police, let alone made the news.

For millions of women in India, "eve-teasing" -- the Indian euphemism for men sexually harassing women in public with leers and gropes -- is a fact of life when they venture outside their homes or use public transport.

Now though, some women are fighting back with a project dubbed "Blank Noise," inspired by the blog of artist Jasmeen Patheja, 26, where pictures of men who'd assaulted her on the street had been uploaded.

Recently some Blank Noise women -- there are male members -- were in South Extension, a busy shopping center in New Delhi, involved in a hybrid of street action and performance art aimed at turning the tables on men who leer at women in public. When a man stares, they move toward him, surrounding him silently and stare right back. Faced with a dozen pair of eyes boring into them, all retreat.

As if to underline the point, the women's clothes were daubed with the words "Y R U Looking At Me," while leaflets explaining how sexual harassment violates a woman's self-respect and dignity were handed out to onlookers.

Patheja's powerful ideas stem from her own experience, as a victim of sexual assault and as someone who's had to curb her behavior and style of dress as a result of men leering and groping in public. Her latest project is a display of 1,000 items of clothing worn by women at the time of their sexual assault that will go on display this month and show there's no link with immodest dress.

Other outreach work involved reading out on public transport the postings of victims of sexual harassment on the Blank Noise Web site. One tells of how three friends went out for dinner one evening, only to be groped on a bus. Another one from Bangalore speaks of the fear someone will randomly "grab me and rape my space."

"The men are shell-shocked when they hear [the readings]. Sometimes women jump up and say we've described their experiences exactly and want to join," says Nirmala Ravindran, a journalist who's been at a bus reading.

The background to the situation is a sad indictment on India's ability to fully tackle the huge question of female inequality. Here, sexual harassment is a fact of life, with surveys showing 90 percent of female college students claiming to have suffered. These incidents be confused with what many women the world over would recognize as low-level hassle. Government figures, which many say barely scratch the surface of the problem, released last month show that a woman is raped in India every half an hour.

Foreign women are particularly vulnerable as some Indian men think Western women are sexually available, a situation aggravated by exposure to Western pornography. The son of a politician was jailed recently for raping a German tourist in Rajasthan.

Commentators give various explanations for the situation, not least that India is a sexually repressive society which segregates the sexes from childhood onward, forbidding even innocent contact.

"Because they've had so little interaction, men here are totally uninformed about women. There is a deep-seated awkwardness. They don't realize what is acceptable or what the boundaries are," says Laura Neuhaus, a 23-year-old Texan who works for an information technology multinational in Bangalore.

Bollywood movies are also blamed.

"The hero chases the woman and she acts all coy, spurning his advances. He keeps teasing her and being suggestive and in the end she responds. Men think women like that," says Uday Prakash, a software engineer in Bangalore and a male member of Blank Noise.

Another factor is that India does a bad job at preparing its daughters to defend themselves. Few would stare back at a stranger and shout at them to stop or go away. Cultural conditioning teaches them to be docile and compliant. Merely meeting a man's gaze can make women blush.

Men are losers too though in eve-teasing. One posting suggests that perhaps any overture by a man might be construed negatively. In one case, a man's picture is on the site for asking a woman at a bus stop to join him for a cup of coffee.

A visitor to the site remarked: Just shows how conservative a country India is and how big losers Indian girls are. A stranger accosts for coffee and they say it's eve-teasing.

But for Patheja this is not an example of a gray area. "Every culture has its rules and we all know them. It's not accepted in India for a random stranger to start talking to a woman unless she's been introduced," she says.